“The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.”
–W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge
I was talking with a fellow musician who also owns a music business. This person told me something that I never knew before–this person was an orphan, and had been in many different foster homes. Most of the other children in the same situation did not do well, but this person was the exception. Why? The state paid $250 an hour for this child to study with a renowned conductor. Although not a conductor now, that experience influenced this person not only in the choice of career, but also to open a music business rather than do as so many of the other children of that generation and make choices that led to drug abuse and criminality.
Now, admittedly, $250 an hour seems like a lot of money. But even if it were for a hundred hours, at $25,000, today this person is a successful business owner, and keeps a lot of other musicians in business, too. Not only did the taxpayers save $45,000 a year by not keeping this man in prison, as so many others are, but he pays substantial amounts in taxes, too, that would otherwise have been lost.
When we hear talk about cutting budgets, the arts are almost always the first thing to go. As the story of this person and so many others (they are legion) tells us, music or art is often the razor’s edge that integrates someone into society, and can sometimes literally mean the difference between life and death. My own experience with hearing the music of Buxtehude at age twelve profoundly influenced my life. As a society, how different would we be if we stopped thinking of the arts as a luxury, and started to think of them as an investment? (The U.S. government currently spends $167.5 million to support the arts, and the grants rarely, if ever, go to an individual artist. Where does the money go? It goes to children like my fellow musician: the poor, the disenfranchised, the refugees, the homeless, the victims of crimes, the orphans. In other words, the very children, like my friend, for whom the arts comes down to that razor’s edge between a productive life and a destructive one. The grants also support job training in the arts for children and the developmentally disabled, who sometimes have no other interaction with society except through the arts.)
I have heard people say that it is not the function of government to support the arts. However, it is the function of government to do its best to integrate people into its society. (And for all the people who point out the artists and composers that were supported by the Pope, or nobles, I would like to remind you that those people cited were the government at the time.)
The arts are not elitist: anyone can learn to practice them. The arts are not a luxury: we are all dependent on the arts for the design of our homes, our vehicles, the appliances we use every day, the music we hear, unnoticed. And for those who are in danger of falling out of society, the arts can be the one thing in their entire lives that shows them that learning to live within society has something worthwhile to offer them. So before we cut the arts budgets, let’s make sure we’re not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Let’s try to adopt those babies into the arts, and into society, instead. Their lives depend on it. Our lives, may, someday, depend on it.